But the Duke learned from his mistakes. He took his appointment of Commander in Chief of the army seriously, vowing that no officer should ever labor under the disadvantages he had faced. For his defeats were not just down to his own inexperience but the state of the army in general. The previous Commander in Chief, Lord Amherst had cultivated a culture of favoritism and bribes, as well as undertraining and under-maintained troops. Official positions were purchased rather than earned on merit.
The Duke set about reforms. He increased troop discipline, ensuring all new recruits were properly trained in drill and field maneuvers. At the same time, he ensured that punishments became much less brutal and barracks and rations were improved to heighten morale. Soldiers’ provisions were now provided out of the public purse rather than relying upon a company’s colonel to cloth and equip them. He also modernized by creating a new regiment, the 95th Rifle Brigade, equipped with the latest high-precision Baker rifles and plain uniforms so they did not provide easy targets in the field.
Perhaps recognizing his own shortcomings, the Duke also encouraged merit-based promotion. He stamped down on commission purchasing and increased the number of free commissions to allow worthy men to rise through the ranks. In 1802, he established the Royal Military College at Sandhurst for the training of officers. Finally, he founded the Duke of York’s school at Chelsea for the sons of soldiers.
All of this was timely. For in 1802, war broke out again with France-this time under the command of Napoleon. Without the Duke’s reforms, it is unlikely the British army could have defeated Napoleon’s troops in the Peninsular War.
In 1803 Napoleon turned his attention to invading England. “All my thoughts are directed towards England,” he said, “I want only for a favorable wind to plant the Imperial Eagle on the Tower of London”. Although the invasion never happened as the French Dictator turned his attention to Egypt instead, the Duke of York played his part in the military preparations for thwarting any French invasion.
Firstly, the Duke saw to it that 50 out of the 93-army regiments had a reserve battalion created. These reserves would only serve on British soil and only be called upon if the invasion occurred. The Duke also organized the activities of civilian volunteers. These volunteers were not to engage the enemy directly but to act as a kind of resistance. Operating in small bands, they were to harass and distract the occupying French in localized guerrilla attacks.
The Duke also put forward the case for building field fortifications in advance of any invasion, as “the erection of such Works must be immediate with a view to their probable utility”. These fortifications were placed along the coast at spots where any invading force was most likely to land.
He received permission and funding and so began building fortifications on the western heights over Dover and the first of the Martello towers along the Kent and Sussex coasts, which acted as artillery emplacements.
The Duke may have earned respect as a military reformer. But he also had a reputation for irresponsibility. He and his elder brother, the future Prince Regent and George IV were close friends. And like George, the Duke had a reputation for extravagance and was perpetually in debt through gambling.
That close relationship with his brother could have ended his life prematurely. On May 26, 1789, the Duke fought a duel on Wimbledon Common with Colonel Charles Lennox, the future Duke of Richmond. The colonel had been appointed to the Coldstream guards, against the Duke’s wishes as Lennox was opposed to his brother. So when York made disparaging remarks about Lennox’s family, the colonel challenged his superior officer to a duel.
The Duke may have been an incompetent commander. But he was no coward. He avoided using his rank to avoid the challenge and met Lennox at the appointed place. Lennox fired first and the Duke received the shot, without flinching.
The short grazed his hair. When it came to the duke’s turn to fire, he simply shot into the air declaring he bore Lennox no animosity. Honor was satisfied and the colonel quietly switched regiments.
But in 1809, the Duke was forced to resign his commission because of a scandal emanating from his personal life.
Unhappily married to his cousin Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia, the Duke had had a mistress, a Mrs. Mary Anne Clarke. The Duke and Mrs. Clarke lived together for two years. The Duke tired of the relationship – but promised his ex-mistress an annuity so her daughters could be established in respectable lives. However, due to his excessive lifestyle, he did not keep up with the payments. The disgruntled Mrs. Clarke was forced to downgrade and move to Hampstead and there she came to the attention of Colonel Gwyllym Wardle.
Mrs. Clarke told Wardle him that the duke had been selling commissions. The person desiring promotion would approach Mrs. Clarke who would then ‘recommend’ them to the Duke. Generally, Mrs. Clarke claimed, the Duke would agree as he went without her attentions if he did not comply. This was a massive embarrassment, not least because the Duke’s reforms were attempting to eradicate this very practice. But the possibility that the Duke himself could have been using his mistress as an intermediary to receive bribes was a grave matter.
Wardle accused the Duke of corruption and a House of Commons inquiry was set up. The Duke was acquitted of receiving bribes by 278 to 196. But feeling that the votes against him were enough to constitute a vote of no confidence, he resigned from his command. But in 1811 when it was revealed that Mrs. Clarke had been paid by Wardle to provide her testimony. Wardle had promised her £5000 in cash and all her debts cleared and a new house in Chelsea. Honor restored, the Duke returned to his post.
He died of dropsy and heart disease in 1827, honored for his military work by parliament and in 1834 commemorated by the Duke of York column, just off Waterloo Place in London.